Monday morning Q & A

Leslie asks:

“Given that high school sophomores often have no idea yet where they might want to attend college, how does one decide whether to take the SAT subject tests? I understand only the most elite and selective schools require them, but it is confusing when one does not yet know if those schools are within reach. Do you recommend erring on the side of caution and taking them just in case you might need them if you are taking, say, AP World History or Honors Chemistry in 10th grade, or waiting until junior year to take subject tests when one has a better idea of where they might be applying based on ACT/SAT scores?”

It’s a great question, Leslie. First, for the uninitiated, Subject Tests are each one hour long and test a specific subject (here’s the College Board’s complete list). A selection of Subject Test scores are required or recommended by about 40 of the most selective colleges and universities. There are also approximately 40 other colleges that will consider them if submitted. The most current, factually accurate list I’ve seen is maintained here by our friends at Compass Prep.

The best time to take Subject Tests is at the end of the school year, when the student is finishing the corresponding course, as that’s when students tend to know the material best. In particular, a student who performed well in an AP class is likely to score well on the corresponding Subject Test with the exception of AP European History, which does not translate to being prepared for the World History Subject Test.

But as Leslie astutely notes, this is one of those times when what’s best for test taking may not necessarily be best for the test taker. Say you have a 10th grader who’s taking World History and getting an A. But this student doesn’t know where they want to go to college. Do you have them take the World History Subject Test in June at the end of sophomore year?

What about the sophomore—or in some cases the particularly motivated freshman—who’s taking Biology? These students will never be more prepared for those tests than they are when they finish the respective course. But they don’t know where they’ll be applying, and Subject Tests just aren’t used by that many of the 2000 colleges out there. So there’s a chance they might be taking tests they’ll never need for admission.

And what about the student who struggles with standardized tests? Should they really invite another opportunity to be reminded that they weren’t gifted the test-taking gene?

Some student populations won’t entertain these concerns—they’ll just want to position themselves to be competitive no matter what the cost in time, effort, or money (it’s $26 to register, plus an additional $22-$26 per test).

There’s no easy answer, but here are a few questions to consider.

  • Will this student be applying to colleges that currently require or recommend Subject Tests? If the student isn’t sure, are they a high achiever who’s likely to apply to any of the 40-60 most selective colleges? If so, the decision is pretty clear.
  • Is the student thriving in a course (earning at least an A or a high B) that ties to a Subject Test, like Biology, Chemistry, or U.S. History? Let them potentially show off that strength by taking a Subject Test. There’s no sense asking a kid who’s getting a C in Chemistry to sit for a standardized test on that subject. But for the student with a subject and testing strength, here’s their chance to use it, as thorough preparation for an AP test is likely to leave a student prepared for the Subject Test (though remember that AP Euro doesn’t tie to the World History Subject Test).
  • Does the student do well on standardized tests? If so, this might be another chance to lean into that gift.

But if the student isn’t a likely candidate for the most selective schools, if they’re not necessarily thriving in the course, or if they just don’t perform well on standardized tests, you might reconsider putting them through more (potentially) unnecessary testing.

When in doubt, if a student meets the conditions described above, I’d have them take the appropriate Subject Tests at the appropriate times. Score Choice is available for Subject Tests, so students won’t have to show colleges their scores unless they apply to those schools that suggest or require that you send all scores. And having test scores on record that you ultimately don’t need is better than arriving at the senior year wishing you could go back in time to take the appropriate Subject Tests.

Thanks for your question, Leslie. I’ll answer another one next week. You can submit yours for consideration here.